Reviewed by Keri Minehart
O'Brien's Desk is the debut novel by author Ona Russell. Some of the issues addressed in the book—political corruption, drug addiction, anti-Semitism and homophobia—could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, but when Russell read of them, the newspapers they came from were anything but current. The clippings she pored over were from the 1920s, hidden for more than 70 years in a dusty pile of scrapbooks. These articles—chronicling the life of O’Brien O’Donnell, a highly public yet secretive judge—became the foundation for Russell’s first historical mystery, O’Brien’s Desk, hailed by NPR’s Richard Lederer as “terrific” and “riveting” and by novelist Anne Perry as “an intriguing and thoroughly researched story that gives us insight into the moral dilemmas of 20th Century America.”
The year is 1923, and O’Brien O’Donnell, called Obee by his friends, is a well-loved judge in Toledo, Ohio. His progressive politics and humanitarian strides make him one of Ohio’s most admired figures. At 59, he has recently married and become a father for the first time. Soon after the birth of his daughter, Obee receives a chilling blackmail letter that takes him to the brink of insanity. From his hospital bed, he turns to his trusted colleague, Sarah Kaufman (who was also a real person), for help. Sarah is a woman ahead of her time—a single, Jewish, career woman of exceptional intelligence and strength. She is eager to stop the blackmailer from ruining Obee’s chances for re-election and launches an investigation to clear his name. In doing so, she risks her own life to save his.
An interesting note about O’Brien’s Desk is that the real-life O'Brien O'Donnell was Russell's grandfather-in-law. When her mother-in-law passed away, she came across O’Donnell’s scrapbooks, and she began work on her first novel based on information she gained from them. The scrapbooks weren’t her only source however; Russell did meticulous research to make the story more authentic.
Equal parts rich history lesson and can’t-set-down mystery, this novel has already left a wake of enthusiastic readers in its path. Many of them are eagerly anticipating Russell’s next novel in the series, set during the Scopes “Monkey” trial, also with Sarah Kaufman as the heroine. Russell's attention to detail, especially in describing 1920s Ohio and its political climate, add to the quality of the novel. O'Brien's Desk would be a great read for any fan of historical fiction.
More information about this book:
Sunstone Press, April 2004